Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto’s updated version (created for the RSC in 2018) of Molière’s 1664 comedy is at its funniest when closest to the original. Gupta and Pinto, whose writing credits include The Kumars at No 42 and Citizen Khan, relocate the action from Louis XIV’s Catholic Paris to present-day Birmingham and a Muslim household of Pakistani origin (dominated by a huge, bling chandelier in Bretta Gerecke’s set). They mostly follow the plot we know. A hypocrite holy man, Tartuffe (Asif Khan), “forger of devotion” in Molière’s words, cons a credulous father into giving him all his worldly wealth and almost succeeds in marrying the daughter of the house, but is exposed (ahem!) when he makes lustful advances to the wife of his dupe (trousers round ankles, leopardskin boxers on display). Khan, Simon Nagra (as dupe) and Natalia Campbell (as wife) gloriously fuse satire, comedy and farce.
Where Molière’s play satirises the hypocrisy of an individual who uses religious practices as a mask, though, Gupta and Pinto seem to want to use it as a platform for issues around religion, race and identity. They introduce backstories and lean heavily on stereotypes while making broad assumptions about audience preconceptions. When the Bosnian cleaner Darina (punchily punky Olga Fedori) challenges the audience, in pantomime-style direct address: “You didn’t know Bosnians were Muslims!”, I doubt I was the only one wanting to shout back: “Oh, yes we did!”
Iqbal Khan’s direction concentrates on broad-stroke comedy, emphasising caricature over character and shouty confrontations over dramatic encounters. Fun-to-watch, dynamic performances include, besides those mentioned, Salman Akhtar’s gangsta-rapping, disinherited son; Anshula Bain’s touching, marriage-threatened daughter; Siddiqua Akhtar’s imperious grandmother; and Roderick Smith’s know-it all convert Khalil/Colin.
Gupta and Pinto strain after contemporaneity and particularity; Molière, born 400 years ago, gives us universal characters who reflect our eternal vices, our follies our gullibility – and still make us laugh.